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The Role of Technology in Human Trafficking—RFP

Request for Proposals

Winning Proposals Announced

Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit are pleased to announce the winning applications for research awards that address the role of technology in human trafficking. A total grant of US$185,000 will be distributed among the following six winning proposals, each of which involves unique, imperative research.

  • Dr. Nicole Bryan, Dr. Ross Malaga, and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University and Dr. Rachel Swaner of the Center for Court Innovation, for research on how networked technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, are used by “johns” to procure children for sexual purposes.
  • Dr. Susan McIntyre of Calgary, Alberta; Dr. Dawne Clark of Mount Royal University; and Norm Lewis, research assistant at Mount Royal University, for research on the role of technology in the recruiting, buying, and selling of victims in the sex trafficking industry.
  • Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America, for a comprehensive assessment of judicial opinions on child sex trafficking issued over the last 10 years.
  • Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, for research on technology’s role in facilitating child sex trafficking and understanding the benefits and obstacles for law enforcement.
  • Dr. Jennifer Musto of Rice University, for research on how law enforcement takes advantage of the benefits—and overcomes the obstacles—of using technology to combat the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Dr. Anna W. Shavers, Dr. Dwayne Ball, Professor Matt Waite, Professor Sriyani Tidball, and Dr. David Keck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for research into identifying the clandestine language that is used in web advertising of child sex trafficking and conceptualizing intelligent software to identify such online advertisements.

Schedule and Deadlines

  • RFP released: December 7, 2011
  • Proposal submission deadline: February 17, 2012
  • Notification of results: March 23, 2012


Networked technologies—including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media—alter how information flows and how people communicate. There is little doubt that technology is increasingly playing a role in the practices and processes surrounding human trafficking: the illegal trade of people for commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, and other forms of modern-day slavery. Yet, little is known about costs and benefits of technology’s role. We do not know if there are more human trafficking victims as a result of technology, nor do we know if law enforcement can identify perpetrators better as a result of the traces that they leave. One thing that we do know is that technology makes many aspects of human trafficking more visible and more traceable, for better and for worse. Focusing on whether technology is good or bad misses the point; it is here to stay and it is imperative that we understand the role that it plays. More importantly, we need to develop innovative ways of using technology to address the horrors of human trafficking. To do so, we must untangle technology’s role in different aspects of the human trafficking ecosystem.

To date, there is little empirical research into the role that technology plays in human trafficking. As a result, new interventions and policies are being driven by intuition, speculation, and extrapolation from highly publicized incidents. The goal of this RFP is to help fund scholarly inquiry that generates important public knowledge that can help ground public policy discussions and drive the development of new interventions.

For the purposes of this RFP, we focus on human trafficking that results from U.S. demand, involves victims who are under the age of 18, and includes sexual abuse. We acknowledge that human trafficking is a global problem, that victims are of all ages, and that sexual victimization is part of a broader ecosystem of victimization (including issues of migration, labor trafficking, and organized crime). Our efforts to narrow the scope are driven by practical considerations and by our own areas of expertise.

Human trafficking has many facets to it and technology’s role varies as a result. We have mapped out some of the diverse ways in which technology and human trafficking intersect in Human Trafficking and Technology: A framework for understanding the role of technology in the commercial exploitation of children in the U.S. In this document, we provide a framework for thinking about some of the intersections between technology and human trafficking. Although we would like to address all of the questions that emerge, we are focusing this RFP specifically on questions that emerge from two parts of the commercial transaction process:

  • #5: Advertising and Selling of Victims
  • #6: Searching for and Purchasing Victims by “Johns”

The commercial transaction process raises significant questions regarding the role of technology. Some of these questions include:

  • How are different services and technologies used to advertise the sale of sexually exploited minors? What is the role of online classifieds, niche websites, underground communication channels (for example, the “dark net”), social network sites, email, instant messaging, search engines, smart phone apps, SMS, cell phones, and so forth?
  • How are different services and technologies connected? (For example, do interactions occur just on one website or when do they involve a combination of different communication platforms and mobile technologies?)
  • What are the differences between how children are exploited on general-purpose online classified sites versus niche sites designed specifically to advertise exploited youth?
  • How do “pimps” advertise victims for sale online?
  • When, where, why, and in what contexts do children advertise themselves online?
  • How do “johns” search for their victims? How do they learn which services to use? How do they learn to trust that ads are not law enforcement?
  • How are “pimps” communicating with “johns”? How do they learn to use the same encoded language? How does that language evolve over time?
  • How is an arrangement to meet made during the process?
  • How do “pimps” confirm that a “john” is not a law enforcement officer? What kinds of background checks are done?
  • How do these processes differ when those being exploited are young children versus teenagers?
  • How do these processes differ when those being exploited are U.S. citizens versus those trafficked from outside of the United States?

Project Context

Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (DCU) believe the power of technology can help us solve the greatest challenges of our time. Microsoft Research is dedicated to conducting basic research into all arenas in which technology plays a role. Scholars at Microsoft Research come from a wide array of disciplines, including: anthropology, communications, computer science, economics, information science, mathematics, media studies, physics, psychology, sociology, and software engineering. Researchers focus on more than 60 areas of computing and collaborate with leading academic, government and industry researchers to advance the state of the art. DCU is a worldwide team of lawyers, investigators, technical analysts and other specialists working to transform the fight against digital crime through partnerships and legal and technical breakthroughs that destroy the way cybercriminals operate. A unique team in the tech industry, DCU focuses on disrupting some of the most difficult cybercrime threats facing society today—including economic crimes (especially those fueled by the use of botnets) and technology-facilitated child sexual exploitation.

As a technology service provider, Microsoft wants to help ensure that the technologies it builds are not contributing to crimes against children. We also believe it is our duty to society to promote the development of solutions and approaches that help curb human trafficking. We believe we can do this by engaging in public-facing research, promoting the development responsible technology and social interventions, and working with organizations that are committed to ending exploitation.


The primary goal of this RFP is to better understand technology’s role in the commercial transaction processes. While the questions listed in the above Overview section are important, they are not the only questions that can be asked. We are open to scholarly inquiries that can address any aspect of these dynamics. Additionally, while we are primarily interested in funding proposals that address the technologically mediated advertisement, searching, and sale of children for sexual exploitation, we are open to proposals that address other key questions that come from the role of technology in the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

This RFP seeks to:

  • Gain knowledge of how technology is used when children are advertised for sexual exploitation and how those seeking to sexually exploit children leverage technology to come into contact with their victims
  • Imagine new possibilities for intervention that leverages the power of technology
  • Begin building a body of research that addresses technology’s role in human trafficking

Monetary Awards

  • We are offering research grants of up to US$150,000 for empirical research projects that can help address at least one of the aforementioned questions about the role of technology in connecting perpetrators and victims.
  • We will offer at least one—and up to five—distinct grants for this project, totaling US$150,000 in grant making.


This RFP is not restricted to any one discipline or tailored to any particular methodology. We are especially welcoming of proposals that come from cross-disciplinary teams. We recognize that the knowledge necessary to address these questions may come from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, computer science, criminal justice, ethnic studies, information studies, law and jurisprudence, media studies, public health, social work, sociology, and women’s studies. We welcome proposals involve doing ethnographic fieldwork or collecting survey data as well as those that rely on second party sources, such as interviewing law enforcement or practitioners.

To be eligible for this RFP, your institute and proposal must meet the following requirements.

  • Institutions must have access to the knowledge, resources, and skills necessary to carry out the proposed research.
  • Institutions must be either an accredited degree-granting university with a non-profit status or a research institution with non-profit status.
  • Proposals that are incomplete or request funds in excess of the maximum award will be excluded from the selection process.
  • The receiving institution must agree that awards are made as unrestricted gifts, will not be subject to indirect costs or overhead charges, and these may not be included in the budget for the proposed project.

Submission Process

Microsoft Research shall have no obligation to maintain the confidentiality of any submitted proposals. Therefore, proposals should not contain information that is confidential, restricted, or sensitive. Microsoft Research reserves the right to make the winning proposals publicly available, except those portions containing budgetary or personally identifiable information.

To be considered for this RFP, submit your proposal via email to Microsoft Research Social Media HT and include the following information.

  • Biographical information and contact information: This should include a brief description of any relevant prior research, publications, or other professional experience.
  • Complete project proposal: The proposal contains full details of the proposed project in a maximum of 10 pages. The project proposal will be made available for peer review by Microsoft researchers and scholars in the field. The project proposal should include:
    • Project description: What set of questions will be addressed? How will they be addressed? How will answering these questions help advance what is known about technology’s role in human trafficking?
    • Approach: What is the methodological and theoretical approach that the researchers will address? Exactly how will the researchers go about answering the question? Include a description of how the researchers will handle the legal and ethical challenges of doing work in this area.
    • Related research: Briefly summarize related research, including references where appropriate.
    • Researchers’ roles: Describe the role of individual researchers on the project and how their skills and knowledge enable them to address the question proposed.
    • Schedule: What milestones will be used to measure progress of the project during the year and when will they be completed? If the project described is part of a larger ongoing research program, estimate the time for completion of this project only.
    • Use of funds: Provide a budget (in U.S. dollars) describing how the award will be used. The budget should be presented as a table with the total budget request clearly indicated.
    • Other support: Include other contributions to this project (cash, goods, and services), if any, but do not include the use of university facilities that are otherwise provided on an ongoing basis. Note: Authors of winning proposals will be required to submit an original letter on department letterhead certifying the commitment of any additional or matching support described in the proposal.

Selection Process and Criteria

All proposals received by the submission deadline and in compliance with the eligibility criteria will be peer-reviewed by a panel of subject-matter experts chosen from Microsoft Research and the broader scholarly community. Based on evaluations by the review panel, Microsoft Research will select the most worthy proposals for funding. Microsoft Research reserves the right to fund winning proposals at an amount greater or lower than the amount requested, up to the stated maximum amount. Note: Due to the volume of submissions, Microsoft Research cannot provide individual feedback on proposals that are not funded.

All proposals will be evaluated based on the following criteria:

  • Addresses an important research question that, if answered, has the potential to have a significant impact on the public’s understanding of technology’s role in human trafficking.
  • Potential for wide dissemination and use of knowledge, including specific plans for scholarly publications, public presentations, and white papers.
  • Ability to complete the project including adequacy of resources available, reasonableness of timelines, and qualifications of identified contributors.
  • Qualifications of principle investigator including previous history of work in the area, successful completion of previous funded projects, research or teaching awards, and books published.


Funded researchers must seek approval of their institution’s review board for any work that involves human subjects.

Microsoft Research makes no claims on any of the data collected as a part of this research, but at the completion of the project, the funded researchers will be required to produce a white paper that describes what was learned as a result of this project.

Microsoft Research encourages researchers to publish their work in scholarly venues. Funded researchers do not need to seek Microsoft Research’s approval prior to publication, but should share a draft of their articles with Microsoft Research.

Future Research Efforts

By focusing narrowly on technology’s role in the advertising and sale of children for commercial sexual exploitation, we recognize that we are excluding many researchers whose work touches on human trafficking and who may be able to address important research questions in this ecosystem. We are hoping to expand our scope in future calls. If you would like to be involved as we expand our scope, please send an email message to Microsoft Research Social Media HT that includes:

  • Your name and contact information
  • Your affiliation
  • A one-paragraph description of your research as it relates to human trafficking

About the Project

This project is being coordinated by Dr. danah boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft Research and supported by Rane Johnson, principal research director at Microsoft Research Connections.